This is what we served to our guests as part of the main course and it was very well received. It’s basically the side of pork after the loin has been removed. Depending on what side of the pond you’re on it’s either belly-pork or pork-belly. Here in France it’s call the “poitrine” and whilst a lot cheaper to buy than prime cuts with a bit of work it can be a really impressive dish. It’s true that it can take a while to prepare but not that long and it’s quite simple, even I can do it, and with the addition of carefully chosen ingredients it can be really stunning.
So off we go. Buy the poitrine. Ask your butcher to remove the ribs or do it yourself. I find it strangely satisfying but I’ve always been a bit odd!
Make sure that you choose a poitrine with lots of meat on it as some can be very fatty. It’s worth going to a really good butcher even if you have to pay more. And, during the preparation, remove any excess fat that you come across. If pork fat bothers you you’ll just have to make yourself a green salad instead I’m afraid!
So you’ve got your poitrine and now you’ve got to pretend you’re a surgeon and proceed to carry out the necessary operations.
Place the tip of a really sharp knife under one edge of the ribs and saw merrily away with the cutting edge inclined slightly upwards so that it closely follows the rib. Prod around with your fingers to make sure that there aren’t any crafty pieces of bone pretending that they aren’t there. Later you can marinate the ribs in a BBQ sauce and cook them in the oven, under the grill or even outside, on that strange bonfire thing in a box known, I think, as a BBQ. This always confused one of my favourite, fictional characters, Rumpole of the Bailey, as he could never quite understand why people didn’t use the perfectly good cooker which was standing redundant in the kitchen. You’ll notice on the picture above that, after removing the ribs there is a section of the poitrine which is standing higher than the rest of the cut. You need to slice this but leave the far edge attached like an hinge and simply fold it back so that the overall depth of the poitrine is as even as possible making it easier to roll. The following picture shows you what I mean.
Now, if you’re still with me, when you’re happy flip the whole thing over and remove around half of the skin as below. Or all of it if you are strange and don’t like “Crackling”. If you leave all the skin on it will be difficult to roll.
You’ll notice that the sheet of meat isn’t exactly oblong it’s more a quadrilateral or, for all I know – or care, maybe even a Triskaidecagon or a Icosagon! Anyway, you need to make it as near as possible a perfect oblong so cut the short sides to make them square with the longer sides BUT, don’t just lob off a vaguely triangular lump but, take your time, and cut in slices, thereby giving yourself bacon for breakfast. Stuffed pork belly, BBQ’d ribs and now bacon. What value you’re getting!
Now, flip the whole thing over again. ……..Wake up at the back!! and lay your “stuffing ingredients” on the flesh after you’ve seasoned it well with salt and pepper and rubbed it into the meat.
You know. I wish I’d never let myself be persuaded to do this, it takes longer to write than to cook!
But hey, ho, onwards and upwards. Of course you can stuff anything you like into the pork. Apricots or peaches would probably work and when the trees in and around Le Puy Notre Dame are full of cherries I’ll try those and the same later on with wild blackberries.
Now we come to the most important, the messiest and also the most satisfying stage of all. The rolling. The picture below is what it should look like afterwards. Firm, solid and you should be able to bounce it in your hands without it collapsing about you. If it does artistically surround your feet with a mixture of black pudding, apples and sage – it’s your fault, don’t blame me!
Right. If you can’t do a butchers knot then you will not get it tight enough. If I tried to explain how to do one you may well finish up throttling yourself so ask that nice Mister Google and practice on a baguette, the cat, your partners arm, (or even his/her neck if things have reached those depths). If you don’t want to bother then you’ve wasted a lot of time reading this far. Sorry. I’ve embeded a Youtube video below which is one of the clearest that I’ve found
The thing about a butchers knot is that, if you yank on one end, it will tighten and tighten until you can’t pull no more. The problem with a poitrine is that it is actually quite short as your money-grabbing butcher has already lobbed off the valuable loin and is probably sunning himself in Barbados as we speak. In fact quite often the ends don’t overlap but simply meet in the middle. (the meat meets as it were – with apologies to Douglas Adams). But although the two sides will probably not overlap it will still be perfectly formed as long as the stringing is…. altogether now, “TIGHT”. So gently roll/bend it into shape and then encourage it to stay there by applying a moderate amount of grievous bodily harm. It other words give it a gentle thumping. When you have taught it who’s boss and it decides that discretion is the better part of valour and that it had better follow your instructions you can then start to string.
I always start in the middle and then string as near as I can to to the ends. Then simply repeat the process equidistant between the existing strings. As you’re doing it some of the ingredients will have the cheek to pop out from the ends. Just cut off the escaping portions to keep your ends straight, that’ll teach ’em. Now rub salt, (preferably sea salt) and pepper around the exterior of your rolled poitrine paying particular attention to the scoured skin which will become the crunchy “crackling”. And now, finally my good people, you can put away your knives and that bloody string. Clean down your chopping boards and dispose of escaping bits of ingredients because now the preparation is essentially finished and believe me, I’m as relieved as you are!
What you do now is to place the joint in the fridge preferably overnight. Don’t cover it and find some way of supporting it so that the air can flow all around it. A grill or something. I’ve used half a dozen walnuts before now! It looks like a log on legs. Make sure you leave a container or something underneath as it can sometimes lose a fair amount of liquid. And that is why you do it – so that it dries out a little.
The rest is simple: preheat the oven to at least 220°C, take the poitrine from the fridge, rub some more salt and pepper over the skin and put it in the oven in the middle and crackling side up. After half an hour reduce the temperature to 180°C and lower the shelf. At this stage you should be able to see the crackling crisping up. Get rid of any melted fat from the dish and replace the meat in the oven. You can safely leave it for a least two hours before checking it. (I heartily recommend a cheap meat thermometer for this). You’ve now got nothing much to do for several hours so use these free hours to prepare the rest of a meal, read a few chapters of War and Peace or, if you are a masochist, a few excruciating lines of Proust or, if you don’t want to exercise your brain too much, a Tom Clancy. I would however draw the line at Geoffrey Archer. If, when you check it, the meat has not reached pork temperature simply stick it back in, forget about it for another hour or so and return to your previous activities. Of course if you have misguidedly started to read Geoffrey Archer you will now have dumped it in the bin so you’ll have to find something else.
In fact the great thing about the dish is that it is almost impossible to overcook, it’s almost “the longer the better” but, when you do take it out, tap the “crackling” it should not be soggy but have a crispy, solid feel to it. It is now imperative that you loosely wrap it in foil and leave it to rest for at least 45mins. For meal planning purposes I’d allow around at least 3.5 hours plus the 45min. resting period. What? Well , you’ll just have to get up earlier won’t you! And that’s it, after resting I’d cut it into hefty portions around 10cms. thick and not as thin slices. Arrange on the plates with your bits and pieces arranged around it and enjoy your hard work – whilst you bore your guests to death explaining how to tie a butcher’s knot. Me, I’m going to Chez Sonia, the village bar.